While she was a scholar and translator living in Beijing from 1978 to 1983, Christina Gilmartin interviewed Chinese revolutionaries who had worked to bring about social change at the beginning of the 20th century.
As one of the first US scholars to live in China, she was “a real pioneer,” said Gail Hershatter, professor of history at the University of California, Santa Cruz, who lived in China at the same time.
“People really trusted her,” Hershatter said. “They wanted to talk with her because they saw what kind of person she was.”
Dr. Gilmartin, coordinator of Asian studies and associate professor of history at Northeastern University, died of breast cancer in Massachusetts General Hospital on July 12. She was 65 and lived in Milton.
A translator, teacher, and writer, Dr. Gilmartin was an authority on 20th-century Chinese history, with a strong emphasis on women and gender.
‘She was an incomparably devoted and generous mentor to her students.’
Her research in China, Hershatter said, “was never about going into the archives. She got to know a lot of people who were involved in the revolution. They were a small fringe group at the time, trying to figure out how to make social change and to change their own lives.”
Hershatter said she “received messages from people all over the world” after news spread that Dr. Gilmartin had died.
“Lots of people have been writing long compositions in Chinese about what Chris meant to them,” she said. “You could publish a volume on their memories of her generosity and her warmth and her ability to connect with people.”
During her time in China, Dr. Gilmartin immersed herself in her surroundings.
When her son was born in Beijing in 1980, she hired a local woman to help care for him. For the next three years, she and her husband, Peter, spoke only Chinese in the house “in order that the nanny not be excluded from our conversations,” he said.
In an obituary remembrance, her son, Benjamin of Hong Kong, wrote that his mother’s work “made it clear that China’s revolution could not be understood in isolation from the social networks and desires of the people who made that revolution.”
Born Christina Kelley in New York City, Dr. Gilmartin grew up in Greenwich, Conn., where she developed an interest in China in high school when an English teacher assigned a report on Pearl S. Buck.
Marc Kelley of Mount Dora, Fla., said his older sister always loved to travel, perhaps because their parents “taught us that the world is a big place and the United States is just a small part of it.”
“Our mother always said the only way she could get Chris’s attention was to start the car,” he said.
Dr. Gilmartin graduated from Western College for Women in Ohio in 1968 with a degree in intercultural studies.
Later that year, she met Peter Gilmartin when they both volunteered for an Ohio congressional candidate. They married in 1970.
In 1986, she received a doctorate in 20th-century Chinese history from the University of Pennsylvania. Some of her doctoral work was completed while she was living and working in Beijing.
She taught at the University of Houston before joining the history department at Northeastern in 1989.
Georges Van Den Abbeele, founding dean of the College of Social Sciences and Humanities at Northeastern, said in a statement that as a teacher, “she was an incomparably devoted and generous mentor to her students, nourishing them in their research and helping them polish their writing.”
“Graduate students flocked to her classes,” he added, noting that she was also an important mentor to junior faculty.
Dr. Gilmartin’s son said she frequently welcomed students visiting from China into her home.
In 1992, Hershatter said, Dr. Gilmartin led the coordination of a groundbreaking conference at Harvard University and Wellesley College that brought together women’s studies scholars from the United States, Europe, and China.
“She put enormous amounts of time and energy into making sure that everyone could have the kinds of conversation they need to have,” she said. “It was a really important moment because it got the conversation between Chinese and American academics going.”
Dr. Gilmartin’s book, “Engendering the Chinese Revolution: Radical Women, Communist Politics, and Mass Movements in the 1920s,” published in 1995, “made a major contribution to understanding the limits of the Chinese Communist Party’s efforts to reform gender relations during the revolution,” Van Den Abbeele said.
She also helped write and edit other books and published many articles in academic journals. At the time of her death, she was co-writing a book on efforts to reform rural China in the 1940s.
During her career, Dr. Gilmartin received fellowships from the Fulbright Foundation, the Ford Foundation, and the American Council of Learned Societies.
She was affiliated with the Graduate Consortium in Women’s Studies at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, and was a research associate and coordinator of the gender studies workshop at the Fairbank Center for Chinese Studies at Harvard University.
“Her life and her scholarship were not separate things,” said her friend Carma Hinton, a documentary filmmaker and professor of visual culture and Chinese studies at George Mason University in Virginia. “But she was not a careerist. She was a genuinely big-hearted and generous person. There was nothing fake about her. She was always thinking about other people.”
A service has been held for Dr. Gilmartin, who in addition to her husband, son, and brother, leaves a daughter, Elizabeth of Milton; a sister, Corrine Wagner of Charlestown; and a grandchild.
“She was soft-spoken, but very determined, and also very caring,” her brother said. “She really had it all.”